Frequently couched either as a question about demographics or as a
personal statement (“I don’t ever play games”), gamification is dogged
by questions of suitability of purpose, appropriateness of context, or
even the semantic conflict around the use of the word “games” itself.
Whether you fall into the supporter or detractor camp, it’s clear that gamification is inspiring debate and raising questions: play vs. work,
intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, authenticity vs. contrivance, just
to name a few.
So perhaps the best place to start addressing these issues is with
the basics: what can gamification do, why do we care, and what are its
Gamification’s main purpose is to help people get from point A to
point B in their lives — whether that’s viewed through the lens of
personal growth, societal improvement or marketing engagement. We
all have the intrinsic desire to be the best possible people we can
be, and to make the world in our image of its maximum potential.
However, most of us lack the systems thinking (and discipline)
required to get to that goal. What games do well is expose complex,
learnable systems that users can engage with to achieve personal
mastery — and thus accomplish something aspirational.
Weight Watchers is an example. If you ask someone who has
successfully lost weight how he or she did it, they might answer with
an emphatic “Weight Watchers!” What they don’t say is “diet and
exercise,” which is actually what they did to lose the weight,
regardless of pedagogy. Mastering the system — in this case
Weight Watchers’ gamey approach of points, levels, challenges, leader
boards, etc. — becomes what the user most identifies with as
having caused their success.
In this way, creating complex systems that can readily be mastered
by users across a span of time produces a unique affinity between
player and brand. If successful, it’s a lifelong connection that
transcends the mere exchange of cash and clicks common to most
commercial connections. Good gamification has more in common with
other complex systems in the world around us than it does with games,
In tactical terms, gamification can be thought of as using
some elements of game systems in the cause of a business objective.
It’s easiest to identify the trend with experiences (frequent flyer
programs, Nike Running/Nike+ or Foursquare) that feel immediately
game-like. The presence of key game mechanics, such as points, badges,
levels, challenges, leader boards, rewards and onboarding, are signals
that a game is taking place. Increasingly however, gamification is
being used to create experiences that use the power of games without
being quite as explicit. In spheres as diverse as HR, healthcare,
finance, government and education, companies are pushing
the envelope of engaging design with things they learned playing
Farmville or World of Warcraft — without trying to build the
next Salesforce-branded Angry Birds clone.
One of the biggest weaknesses of gamification lies in the
motivation of its creators. While game designers generally credit
themselves with a benevolent desire to expand consciousness, most
marketing folks don’t have the same inclination. So gamification
efforts have come under criticism from many in the games industry for
being shallow — that is, lacking the narrative quality of games
made with a pure entertainment motive.
However, gamification is providing marketers with a new, measurable discipline
that can improve the quality of game-product interaction.
Over the past decade, there have been a number of false starts between
games and brands — notably in advergaming (fully brand-centric
games) and in-game advertising (putting ads into fictional games).
Neither of these categories has been hugely successful, mostly because
they failed to take into consideration the user’s conflicting
motivation for playing games and consuming commercials.
What gamification does is allow marketers to focus on what
they know best — convincing consumers to take loyalty and
purchasing actions — using a powerful toolkit of engagement
gleaned from games. Armed with a new understanding of what makes
people tick, and how to wind them up, marketers can build experiences
that are enduring and engaging.
Of course, some gamified efforts will be weak and shallow, trying
to overcome bad products or poor design with badges and incentives.
Any good marketer knows this isn’t a good long-term strategy. Most of the brands that I work with are very clear on the need for fundamentals: gamification is no panacea. And though there have been some duds, I’m quite confident that the overarching
trend is for the use of good mechanics with good products to create
value in every ecosystem.
I’m also certain that gamification, and the underlying motivations
to succeed and connect that it exposes, are not just for kids. The
evidence of this is all around us. Whether it’s jostling for attention
at a bar on Friday night or on a conference panel, making sure our
kids get into a good college or getting that promotion at work, adults
definitely care about mastering systems.
Gamification makes it possible for big brands and startups alike to
engage us in meaningful and interesting ways, with an eye on aligning
our personal motivations with their business objectives. The net
product of this effort will be more engagement, better products and
— generally — more fun and play in all spheres of our